No visas for voices critical of the US

October 6, 2006

Tariq Ramadan warns that the decision to bar him from America is a blow to academic freedom and hence to Western democracy.

For two years, I have waited for the Bush Administration to tell me why it revoked my US entry visa, a decision that prevented me from becoming a professor of Islamic studies at the University of Notre Dame.

I finally got my explanation last week. It was absurd: apparently, I was - and still am - barred from the US because I donated about £720 to a Swiss humanitarian organisation that provides services for Palestinians. My last donation was made in 2002, a year before the US blacklisted the charity.

But the American Embassy told me that I should "reasonably have known" of its allegedly suspicious activities even before the US Government itself was aware of them.

It is hard to believe that this is really why I was barred. I have always argued that the denial amounted to an ideological exclusion: the Bush Administration wants to prevent me from expressing my views on American soil. The nature of my questioning at the US Embassy in Switzerland seems to confirm this - officials wanted to know my opinion on the invasion of Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

My answers were explicit and consistent: the invasion of Iraq was illegal and a mistake, and unilateral American support to Israel is unjust and does not serve a real peace process.

I have never ceased condemning terrorism in all its forms, and I still do. However, I cannot accept that in the name of the "War on Terror" it is permissible to kill innocent civilians, set up secret prisons, conduct torture and enforce discriminatory laws that do not respect civil or human rights.

Amid rhetoric about "the clash of civilisations" and the War on Terror, one feels that the vice on democratic freedom in Western societies is tightening. We are told that the price of security is giving up more and more of our freedoms. Governments play on fears - of terrorism, immigration, colonisation of our space by "the other", which is very often represented by "the Muslim" - to attract votes and justify the draconian aspects of their policies.

Meanwhile, journalism is reduced to soundbite commentary and excessively simplistic analysis by the pressure to meet the impossible deadlines of highspeed news coverage, by charged emotions colouring perceptions and by the multiplicity of con- flicts around the world.

Our era is delicate and quite dangerous. Faced by potential populist drift, the protection and promotion of academic freedom of expression to counterbalance the common discourse is urgent. Academic freedom is one of the most important indicators of the health of our democracies. It marries scientific competence with the capacity to express views freely, allowing us to comprehend the complexity of the contemporary political situation and to gauge prospects for the future.

We are in dire need of historical reminders, contextualisation, rational and reasonable analysis to help us understand the problems that lie before us. An academic argument, scientific and reasonable, in no way means a smooth discourse devoid of controversy and of social, political, cultural and/or religious claims.

On the contrary, its strength, credibility and utility lie in its ability to express a viewpoint or claim in a clearly articulated form that is open to debate. Academic speech can, and sometimes must, be "constructively provocative", as opposed to foolish and counterproductive provocations such as the Danish cartoons of Muhammad or the crude remarks about Islam recently made by a French philosophy teacher.

The bottom line is that the erosion of academic freedom to criticise promotes an oversimplified, populist, binary vision of the world and the legitimisation of the politics of fear that puts Western societies on a heading in the very opposite direction of democracy.

The situation on the American campus is becoming worrisome. It is increasingly difficult to criticise u in an articulate way - the War on Terror, the invasion of Iraq and the uncritical support of Israel. This is especially the case for Muslim or Arab scholars - those who come from overseas are frequently barred from entering the US, while those who already live in the country are often pressured to be overly cautious or to remain silent. Many professors and intellectuals - primarily, but not exclusively, Muslims - whose views and potential audience are known by the Administration see their visas refused under fallacious pretexts. I am not alone.

The situation seems rather different in the UK. I have not been asked to remain silent as a precondition to living here, even though my criticism of the Blair Government, such as the way it copies US policies, is widely known. I can express myself freely. But we must remain vigilant, for some recent cases indicate that the British bad habit of American imitation is unfortunately reasserting itself.

Let us hope that this time, the US follows in the footsteps of Britain rather than the other way around.

Tariq Ramadan is a professor of Islamic studies and is currently senior research fellow at St Antony's College, Oxford, and at the Lokahi Foundation in London.

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